Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón is one of the greatest visionaries of our time. That’s not opinion at this point, it’s simply a fact. So when he comes out with his first film since 2013’s awards-sweeping Gravity, which was his first film since 2006’s awards-sweeping Children of Men, and he calls it “the most essential movie” of his whole career, you’re going to want to pay attention.
Named after the neighborhood in Mexico City where it takes place, Roma is a snapshot in time – a story told quintessentially from memory, and thus, its moments play out as exactly that: memories. It has no exact thorough plot, no direct antagonist, and its stars are all first-time actors. And yet it still tells a beautiful, melancholy, and warm story, punctuated by essential moments taken from the memory of its creator. It might be his best work yet.
Roma chronicles a year in the life of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the maid of a high-class family in Mexico City during the early 1970s. The family seems practically unable to function without Cleo; she wakes up the children and puts them to bed, she gives attention to their underloved dog as well as picks up his waste, and she keeps the house clean and their clothes washed. When Cleo is with the family, she’s quiet and reserved, afraid to voice her opinions or put herself out there. It’s only when she’s with her friend Adela (Nancy García García) that she’s outgoing and talkative, switching back and forth between Spanish and her native Mixtec, and going out to the movies or the park with potential lovers.
Looking into and telling the story of a low-class Mexican citizen, set in Mexico itself, is an obviously powerful statement at the moment, as depressing as it is that we need stories like it to humanize people like her who would otherwise be viewed as nothing more than an unremarkable servant. While Cleo begins and ends her journey in the film at essentially the same place, the year that she goes through shows the strength, resilience, and unyielding love that this woman has, despite what some might think based on her appearance and social standing.
Yalitza Aparicio is a revelation. Her performance is so incredibly subtle, telling you all you need to know just by her facial expressions, and raw in a way only non-actors can convey. The natural feel of it is what helps sell the fact that Roma is a distinctly human story about a regular person with a regular life and regular struggles. Cleo isn’t called into a higher purpose, and there’s no big thing to be stopped or saved. It’s simply a look at what a year is like for Cleo, a significant year, certainly, but nothing that’s wildly extraordinary.
There are big moments, such as an earthquake, a fire, a student protest turned violent, and a delivery at an inopportune time, but they’re shown exactly as they are, with little fanfare. In fact, Roma contains no musical score at all. Scenes play out in silence, the only noises heard are from the characters and the sounds of the neighborhood, and it’s in this silence that the concept of this film being memories from Cuarón’s childhood is truly successful. Our memories certainly don’t come with a soundtrack, why would his?
Paired expertly with that silence is Cuarón’s distinct filming style, with his signature long and continuous shots. This is the director’s first time as his own cinematographer, and rather than his usual, jaw-dropping single take action scenes, he employs long takes where the camera is completely stationary or slowly pans left or right, and sometimes both. The camera, and in turn, the audience, is merely an observer to the events playing out before it, rather than an active participant. Roma is Cuarón’s attempt to capture the memory of events that he experienced during his formative years as a child, in fact, he claims that ninety percent of the scenes represented in the film are taken out of his memory. It’s remarkable how the scenes do come across as exactly that – snapshots in time that stick with you, down to the very smallest of details.
Roma is without a doubt the most essential film of Cuarón’s career, and obviously, his most personal. He returned to his home town in Mexico to shoot it, with every scene filmed on location where the events depicted actually took place, or on sets that were built as exact replicas (he gathered a massive amount of furniture from his childhood home from different family members spread throughout Mexico). It’s a film he’s been waiting to make for almost two decades, and his patience and passion for this project shines through in every moment.
Cuarón himself explains it best, because who else could? “Roma is an exploration of Mexico’s social hierarchy, where class and ethnicity have been perversely interwoven, and above all, it’s an intimate portrait of the women who raised me in a recognition of love as a mystery that transcends space, memory and time.” Roma is that and more. It’s warm, bursting with raw emotion, and nostalgic. It’s one of the best of the year, and it’s timing is perfect. I consider it almost essential viewing.
4.5 / 5 Stars
Roma is now streaming on Netflix.